Beaufort News

Solicitor's office program helps make bad checks good

Hundreds of people and businesses in Beaufort County paid with bounced checks have recouped more than $375,000 thanks to a program that helps them get money they're owed.

Duffie Stone hopes that's just the beginning.

Stone, solicitor for the 14th Judicial Circuit, expects the Worthless Check Program his office launched in 2008 to continue growing as word spreads about it.

From late 2008 through 2010, Stone's office helped 314 businesses and 88 individuals collect about $377,000 owed to them from 1,508 returned checks. This year's numbers were not available.

To participate, a business or resident simply fills out a form and sends a copy of the returned check to the Solicitor's Office, which will handle the rest, including prosecution. There is no fee.

"You get a bounced check, you send it to us. That's it," Stone said. "It takes all the work off the merchants and victims and costs them nothing. It costs the county nothing. The person who wrote the check pays for everything."

"Of the checks that have been processed so far, 86 percent of bad-check writers have paid in full," he said.

Before the program, when a person or business received a bad check, they had to find the person who wrote it and send them a certified letter. Then they had to wait 15 days to find out if they'd be paid.

If the check writer didn't respond, those owed money had to take a copy of the check and the letter to a county magistrate, who could sign a court summons. Then the victims had to wait for a court date and prosecute the offenders themselves -- or pay an attorney to -- at a trial.

"Most people have never had to act as a prosecutor and some small businesses don't have lawyers to do it for them," Stone said. "We have the administration and legal knowledge to find the person and prosecute the case if we need to."

Edra Stephens, director of the county business license office, said her office has recouped payment from about 50 bad checks.

"We don't see many returned checks, but we're a small staff and one less thing for us to have to worry about is great," Stephens said. "All we have to do is fill out the form. They do everything."

Those who write bad checks usually pay up after being contacted by the Solicitor's Office, Stone said. It usually takes about 60 days, he said.

And though merchants who pursue an arrest warrant for a returned check can get a "courtesy summons" from a magistrate that requires the suspect to show up for a court date, the Solicitor's Office can get an arrest warrant that can put the person in jail.

"A warrant gets most of them to pay," Stone said. "The only time we need the victim is to either give them the payment or have them testify in court."

Linde Heyward, an employee in Modern Classic Motors' accounting office, said the business has participated in the program for about two years. The dealership has enjoyed big returns, she said.

The Solicitor's Office has collected on at least five bad checks worth about $25,000. One check totaled $10,500.

"It is amazing," Heyward said. "I used to have to do the collection all by myself. I think a lot of people would think we were joshing them. Now, people know that we're not joking around. Every check I've sent them they have collected on."

In addition to collections, the program pays the merchant or individual $30 to cover returned-check fees. The check writer also has to pay a $41 fee that goes into the county's general fund and a $50 fee that goes to pay employees who run the program, according to Solicitor's Office spokesman Daniel Brownstein.

The $50 fee increases depending on the amount of the check. The fees are mandated by state law, he said.

The national program also is in place in the 14th Judicial Circuit's other counties -- Jasper, Hampton, Colleton and Allendale.

Stone said the number of people who send in bad checks has spiked in the program's second year in each county.

For example, in Jasper County, the number of worthless checks sent to Stone's office jumped from 190 in 2007 to 555 in 2008. The office recovered $13,188 in 2007 compared to $101,837 in 2008. The increase is similar in Beaufort County.

Stone and local businesses say they'll continue to spread the word about the program.

"I can't say enough about it," Heyward said. "I want more people to know so they can take advantage of it."

Follow reporter Cassie Foss at twitter.com/LcBlotter.

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